How Many Israelites Left Egypt? Part 1

Post Author: Bill Pratt 

In Exodus 12:37, the NIV translation of the Bible says, referring to the Israelites leaving Egypt during the Exodus, “There were about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides women and children.” What has puzzled Bible scholars and archaeologists about this number is that it seems far too large. If we add the women and children, we are looking at over 2 million Israelites. Estimates of the total world population at that time are between 25 and 100 million people, and the Israelites are referred to, in the Bible, as small in numbers compared to other people groups in the ancient near east.

Now, it is not impossible that there were literally 2 million Israelites that left Egypt, but there are other ideas about how to translate Exodus 12:37. Biblical scholar Douglas Stuart offers a persuasive alternative explanation in his Exodus: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture (New American Commentary). According to Stuart,

The Hebrew of the Exod 12:37 says literally, “The Israelites traveled from Rameses to Succoth, about six hundred ‘elephs of foot-soldiers, besides women and children.” The NIV translation, like most English translations, contains two arguable assumptions on the part of the translators: that ʾeleph should be translated “thousand,” and that raḡlı̂ in the expression raḡlı̂ haggĕbārı̂m should be translated “men.” Both of these assumptions are, in our opinion, incorrect.

The second, which assumes that raḡlı̂ can mean “men,” is not supportable in any Old Testament context. Some lexicons go so far as to suggest that the term in the singular might mean a “man on foot,” but none could rightly suggest that it means simply “man.” In the grammar of the verse, the addition of the appositional noun haggĕbārı̂m (lit., “[the] young men”) simply clarifies the age of the man/men in question. Since raḡlı̂ always occurs in contexts describing soldiers, including the present context (note the wording “all the LORD’s divisions” in v. 41), and differs from any of the usual terms for “man” or “men,” there really can be little doubt that it should be rendered “foot soldier” or, as some do, “infantryman” wherever it occurs in the Old Testament. The full expression raḡlı̂ haggĕbārı̂m, then, means “young foot soldiers.”

Stuart’s first argument is that the NIV has mistranslated the text as “men on foot” when it should say “foot soldier” or “infantryman.” This is important because the Hebrew text seems to be counting the size of the Hebrew army, not the total population. But we are still left with how to translate the word ‘eleph.

Because the question of the meaning of ʾeleph, however, is so much greater an issue for people as it relates to the accuracy of the Scripture and the proper interpretation of various stories involving the Israelite exodus and conquest of Canaan, the discussion of this term requires a far more extensive review. The reader should bear in mind, however, that Moses did not refer to six hundred ʾelephs of “men” who left Egypt but to six hundred ʾelephs of foot soldiers. He was counting God’s army, not all the people of Israel . . . .

With this in mind, Stuart now takes up the challenge of translating the word ‘eleph. We’ll look at that in part 2.